Gone are the days when eating on the street meant wolfing down a hot dog from a dodgy roach coach. Today’s curbside cooks craft artisanal recipes and dabble in far-flung—or avidly local—flavors. Some are even introducing cuisines you’re hard pressed to find in more traditional settings. Ya know, restaurants.
The recession triggered all sorts of changes in the restaurant world, perhaps none more visibly than the mobile revolution. As the economy spiraled downward, entrepreneurial gourmands who envisioned opening their own eateries pursued a new business model: the food truck. The more manageable startup fees and DIY appeal made them a natural choice, not to mention a perfect way to capitalize on the casual mind-set sweeping the dining scene.
Compared to other cities (hello, Portland!), Seattle is a late bloomer when it comes to curb cuisine. Dated legislation is partially to blame. After a crop of street food merchants turned the southern terminus of the Monorail into a mess of shabby shacks in the early 1980s, Seattle cracked down and enacted regulations allowing only hot dog, popcorn, and coffee vendors on public land. Full service food operations could (and did) skirt the law by parking on private property, even if it meant forking over hefty fees to landowners.
In July 2011 the city council adopted legislation that opened up public roadways to food trucks. The decision rankled restaurateurs, who feared that competition from the low-overhead businesses would infringe on their territory. A compromise was met: On public streets, trucks must remain 50 feet from a fixed food provider (restaurants originally lobbied for 100 feet).
The legislation is not universally popular with the food truckers either—almost all operators still opt to park on private lots instead of city property. For starters, vendors are required to pay a year’s worth of parking up front. They must also purchase annual permits to operate in each location, at $146 a pop, but they cannot test-run locations in advance to gauge profitability. They must secure a restroom within 200 feet for employees if they’re parking for longer than an hour.
Still, one thing remains undeniable: A whole new way of eating is taking root. Currently 298 street food operations have permits in King County. Of those, 143 are full service (the primary focus for this article), and more are on the way.